The national fight over abortion has reached a historic fever pitch. As thousands of pro-life activists fill the streets of Washington D.C during the March for Life this past weekend, the country is gearing itself for a potential landmark decision that could completely change the fate of abortion in the United States, as the Supreme Court will decide whether Roe v. Wade (the law that made abortion a constitutional right) will remain in the books or not.
The debate usually revolves around newly-passed laws, the court challenges, and the opinion polls. However, the fight over abortion is one defined by very passionate activists on the ground on both sides, who spend countless hours canvassing their neighborhoods, talking to people, organizing protests, and pressuring lawmakers. We followed the door-knocking campaign of the Students for Life group in Virginia for a day, here’s what the pro-life campaign looks like on the ground.
A small, organized, and energetic group of pro-life activists
I rendezvoused with the small but committed group of Students for Life activists near a Target parking lot in Richmond, Virginia. There I met Hanna Wolfe, Students for Life regional coordinator for the Capital Area, who then presented me with the rest of her team, she told me that we would be canvassing a suburb outside of Richmond, Virginia.
After finalizing a few last technical details, we drove from the Target to the nearby suburbs of Henrico, Virginia. As we drove to Henrico, Hannah started telling me a bit of her story and how she grew up as a strong pro-life supporter and then got involved as an activist as she was in college. For Hannah, who has dedicated herself full-time to the pro-life movement, abortion is “the greatest human rights injustice in our generation” and she feels a deep sense of responsibility in having an active part in the movement.
Hannah also told me that, despite abortion being arguably one of the most sensitive and fight-prone issues of today, the reception to her work in the DC-Virginia area has been mainly positive. She says that while there is a strong pro-choice sentiment in Virginia, and that the way people receive their canvassing “depends on the door”, she believes that their efforts are going well overall. The key objective, for her, is to engage in a conversation on the issues rather than an argument.
When asked about the incoming SCOTUS decision over the Mississippi fetal heartbeat abortion ban (called Dobbs v. Jackson) Wolfe was clearly thrilled about it: “I am very hopeful for Dobbs,” she said, and that claimed it “is exciting that we’re heading for a post-Roe society,” where the issue of abortion is left to the states to decide.
Although Virginia had voted for the Democratic Party in all statewide elections for some years (until Youngkin’s historic victory last year), the state is more or less divided over the abortion debate. A 2021 CBS/YouGov poll showed that 42% of Virginians thought abortion should be illegal in most cases, while 58% think that it should be legal in most cases. As we were arriving in Henrico, we were going to see how those poll numbers were reflected on the ground.
We were quickly divided into three groups, with each pro-life activist being handed a substantial amount of literature to be distributed. The group, albeit small, was very well-organized, and each one of the three young activists had had some on-the-ground experience canvassing. The game plan is simple, knock on all the doors of your assigned street, talk with the adults in the household if they answer, leave them a brochure if they don’t, and (more times than not) handle the house dog before it ran away from the house.
Despite the climate being a blessing, the door-knocking campaign can be tiring at times. While walking and seeing these activists deliver their points, I talked to Valerie Gomez, a young Latina pro-life activist, who is an active member of the Students for Life organization. Valerie was not always an adamant pro-lifer, she said that while in high school she thought it was something that used to happen a lot, but she was mostly ignorant about the issue. For her, it all changed when she saw a video of an abortion procedure, which she found “very violent, that is not okay. I didn’t know it was performed that way. It bothered me how that was legal.”
For Theresa Marie, another of the young activists, the jump towards a life of activism was fairly easy. She was raised in a pro-life family and she watched the March for Life from a young age. Theresa started her activism in high school, after knowing a friend who worked at a local pregnancy center and successfully talking with a pro-choice classmate over the issue, spurring her desire to take a more energetic role in the pro-life world, becoming a member of Students for Life, opening a local chapter in 2020 for local high school and college students.
Not the usual pro-life talking points
Although Henrico County is an overwhelmingly Democratic county (Biden won it by more than 60% of the vote) the conversations the activists had with the local neighbors were extremely cordial. Albeit many doors knocked went unanswered, as you would expect on a Monday afternoon, those who did open the door tend to respectfully hear the message from the activists.
It is hard to say if anyone was convinced during that specific campaign, but the talking points of the young activists were interesting, did not adhere to the popular convention of how pro-lifers discuss the issue, and it is very likely many people might find them appealing.
Theresa, Charles (another of the activists) and Valerie did not focus on the divisive aspects that could stall the conversation or transform it into an adversarial one. They did not make appeals to religion or even biology when talking to local residents, but focused specifically on the local health center that provides abortions (Richmond Medical Center for Women) and how they have failed to comply with many (seven, according to a 2018 report) of the medical regulations of the state.
All of their messages were centered on the welfare of the woman, rather than in the ethereal philosophical/biological arguments over abortion or on the conflicting way abortion is discussed by politicians or pundits.
This messaging makes much sense for Valerie, who thinks that many people who do not want to hear pro-life arguments do so because they have already known someone who has had an abortion before, and thinks that having such a discussion is a type of “disrespect.” She also says that some pro-life activists also make the work harder as they “label all women who get an abortion as murderers, giving pro-lifers a bad rep.” For Valerie, the abortion industry convinces women to get an abortion in order to enlarge their profits, instead of addressing the root causes of why women might be thinking of an abortion.
For Theresa, the key to convincing people to change their minds over abortion is to “take time for each person and get to know them and the stories that lead them to believe what they believe, because no one cares on what you have to say unless you prove you care about them”. According to Theresa, her drive to fight against abortion is not only based on the defense of unborn children but also by a desire to help women, who need “genuine love and support” and not an abortion that would “cause them more harm and trauma.”
After a long day of knocking doors, talking to neighbors, and delivering brochures, the activists called it a day, whether they managed to change a single mind is really unknowable. What was left clear, however, is that the fight for the national opinion towards abortion will be partly defined by activists (on both sides of the issue) like Hannah, Theresa, Charles, and Valerie.